Historic City Memories: Incident at St. Marks Pond


This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.

Moonshine and Gopher Stew
(Second of a four-part series)

Part II: An Incident near St. Marks Pond
By Geoff Dobson

St. Marks Pond lies in an isolated portion of St. Johns County south of Nine Mile Road, in the 1950’s a dirt road. To its east lies the Florida East Coast Railway. Surrounding portions of the pond are sand ridges. The Pond’s bottom is underlain by peat bogs.

In this area in the 1950’s, there were perhaps four or five moonshine stills.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Scots-Irish immigrated to the United States. Many settled in the Appalachians of Pennsylvania. Their sons and grandsons moved southwards into western Virginia, the Western Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and ultimately into Georgia. Following the Second Seminole War, others moved into Florida, perhaps carrying with them a distant memory of the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers including the making of moonshine, the Cross of St. Andrew, and the Crann Tàra or fiery cross. Thus it was that the Cross of St. Andrew found its way into the Confederate and Florida flags. In the highlands of Scotland, the Crann Tàra was used to give alarm and as a signal for the defense of the homeland from an invader.

On February 15, 1956, a Wednesday night, two men worked a still west of the FEC Railway tracks, perhaps a mile or two from the Pond. Some distance away, concealed from view by palmetto and myrtle, revenue agents watched and waited. A two-door 1950 Chevrolet disappeared down a dirt trail in the direction of the still. The agents could not read the license numbers. The tag light had been removed. Soon the Chevrolet reappeared and left the scene.

The process of making ‘shine takes about five days. Thus, the agents had plenty of time. Water in the copper pot is heated and corn meal, or occasionally hog feed, is added. The resulting mixture is then cooled to about 140 degrees. Malt or occasionally sugar is added. Sugar speeds up the fermentation and increases yield. Some might add bois de vache, cow chips.

The resulting mix is further cooled to about 90 degrees and yeast is added to form the mash. After three days, the mash is heated to 176 degrees, the steam collected in the cap arm, and routed into a thumper keg, so-called as a result of the sound made as particles of the mash are picked up with the steam. From the thumper keg, the mash is then re-evaporated and the steam routed through a copper coil known as the “worm” into the worm box. There, the steam is cooled and condensed. From the end of the worm, the drippings are collected.

The agents left. The next night they resumed their positions in the underbrush watching and waiting. At the still, the two men, Eugene Burrough and Joseph Schugart, continued their work. The Chevrolet again appeared and left. A 1948 Mercury Coupe and a 1951 Chevrolet four-door sedan appeared and departed. At about 7:30 p. m., as the agents were about to conduct their raid, the 1950 Chevrolet again reappeared. Hoss, its driver, was taken into custody and manacled to the front bumper of a nearby 1940 Ford as the raid proceeded.

Within Hoss’s vehicle, the agents found traces of sugar and rye grain. Beneath the front seat, an agent found a whiskey bottle containing about a teaspoonful of moonshine. To be guilty of violating the federal liquor laws, one must operate or have possession of an unregistered distillery, conspire to do so, or have actual or constructive possession of non-tax paid spirits. The Florida Supreme Court had held that being in a vehicle as a passenger at the same time as moonshine was being placed in the trunk did not constitute actual or constructive possession. But a teaspoonful of moonshine was enough. Hoss was guilty, forever branded by Judge Bryan Simpson as a felon.

Like many a moonshiner, Hoss was unrepentant. Eight years later during the troubles in St. Augustine, a representative of the Governor met with Hoss in an effort to stop the marches and counter-marches in St. Augustine. A deal was proposed. Hoss suggested to the Governor’s representative that the deal be sealed with a toast of moonshine. The Governor’s representative declined.

Many have suggested that Hoss was the Exalted Cyclops of the local Klan. Hoss denied being a member. Whether the accusation or the denial is true or false will probably never be definitively known. The original Klan was a secret society borrowing much of its ritual from the Masons (the title “Exalted Cyclops,” comes from the Masonic All-Seeing Eye). The present Klan is in its third incarnation. Its ritual and its membership are secret, passed on orally. Indeed, in the original Klan, members attested before God that they would “never reveal to any one, not even a member of the Order * * * by an intimation, sign, symbol, word or act, or in any other manner whatever, any of the secrets, signs, grips, pass-words, or mysteries of the Order * * * or that I am a member of the same, or that I know any one who is a member * * *.” In the second incarnation there was a secret sign to determine if someone was a member. If Hoss were a member, he would have allegedly attested his loyalty in front of an altar flanked by the American Flag and a flag bearing a Cross of St. Andrew. Upon the Altar rested the Holy Bible opened as prescribed by the Kloran (the Klan’s ritual) to Romans, Chapter 12; the Sabre; and the Vessel containing the Dedication Fluid. At the conclusion of the required interrogation, a new Klansman on bended right knee was anointed by the Exalted Cyclops with the Dedication Fluid. The fluid was described in the Kloran as a “transparent, life-giving, powerful, God-given fluid, more precious and far more significant than all the sacred oils of the ancients.” The fluid was water.

Indeed, one early member of the original Klan, after initiation and the blindfold removed, was surprised to learn that his sons were already members. Thus it was in a later encounter with Judge Simpson during the troubles, that Hoss refused to answer a question as to whether he knew his own sons.

Next Week: Moonshine and Gopher Stew continued, Part III, A Cat and Mouse Game.

Photo credit: Submitted by Geoffrey B. Dobson

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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